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5 Ways to Improve the Effectiveness of Coping Strategies

Your approach to using coping strategies is key when you're learning them.

Key points

  • It can be hard to believe new coping strategies can work when one has reacted the same way to challenging situations for a long time.
  • Even after new coping strategies have been helpful, they won’t be as helpful every time.
  • It may help to mention one's resistance to new coping strategies to a therapist in order to examine the root causes.

Many therapists talk about coping strategies. Developing healthy ways to deal with stress, anxiety, pain, depression, and difficult circumstances is a key component of evidence-based practices for mental health.

While talking about our problems can be useful, it is generally believed by professionals that clients must learn tangible strategies to respond to their thoughts and emotions. These strategies range from meditation and breathing exercises to writing down and challenging our negative thoughts. Cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) are two interventions that teach coping strategies to clients so they can better manage their intense emotions and learn how to respond, rather than react, to stressful situations and interactions.

Often, though, I hear from my clients that the coping strategies aren’t working. People become frustrated after trying a few times to implement new strategies without success. Sometimes, this is because they haven’t given them enough of a chance. Whenever we are trying something new, we’ve got to give ourselves time to practice it. Additionally, it can be hard to believe that coping strategies will work, especially when we’ve been reacting the same way for a long time. It seems difficult to believe that doing something as simple as pausing to take deep breaths could be helpful. But it’s important to keep trying new ways of coping with our feelings to improve our mental health.

Here are some things to consider when it seems like nothing that your therapist suggests is working.

  1. Observe what you are thinking and feeling when a coping skill hasn’t worked. For example, you tried taking deep breaths, inhaling and exhaling slowly. When you finished, you felt irritated and said to yourself, “I don’t feel any better.” Respond to these negative thoughts or judgments about how it went by reminding yourself that it takes time to acquire a new skill. You can also remind yourself not to judge and that some experiences will be more helpful than others.
  2. Set realistic expectations. You don’t want to evaluate the success of coping strategies by how quickly you notice feeling different. Even after new strategies have been helpful, they won’t be as helpful every time. Sometimes, you’ll notice that you feel different right away. At other times, you will wonder whether the coping strategies make a difference at all. You should think about them as a tool for managing your feelings, and you want multiple tools in your toolbox. If one coping mechanism doesn’t seem to be working in a specific situation, try something else. But don’t evaluate their usefulness by how much they make a difference in one specific moment.
  3. Assess your attitude about using coping strategies. Talk with your therapist about your feelings regarding learning and using coping strategies. If you’re pessimistic about whether they’re helpful from the start, it might affect your expectations and your ability to keep trying them. Think about why you are resistant. You may be afraid that if they don’t work, it will be your fault. Or, perhaps, you are afraid to be hopeful.
  4. Reflect on how coping strategies will improve your quality of life and your relationships. While it may be hard to try new things and to keep trying strategies that are difficult, think about the outcome you desire. For example, if you’re struggling to manage your anger, you may frequently explode when you’re having a disagreement with someone you care about. It would be great to learn how to respond to your anger and gain control over your emotions so that you can resolve conflicts easily and peacefully. Thinking about the outcome that you desire and the ways that it would change your relationships may motivate you to exert more effort in using new strategies.
  5. Reward yourself for success. Give yourself credit when you get the hang of new coping strategies. Remind yourself that you’re working hard and that you’ve done a good job. Feeling better will be its own reward, but it never hurts to treat yourself for a job well done.

Even though coping strategies are going to be useful, they aren’t going to work easily and immediately. Learning and implementing new coping strategies is hard, and it’s important to acknowledge that it’s hard. However, if you work at it, you will keep learning and get better at using them.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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